From a young age, director Martin Scorsese was marked by Catholicism, and it bubbles up in many of his films, most obviously in The Last Temptation of Christ and, now, Silence. Though he also made a film on Tibetan Buddhism (Kundun), Scorsese has been perhaps not so much a religious seeker as a seeker of the meaning of religion, its relative harms and usefulness.
Like anyone who has paid attention to history, Scorsese has seen religion feed the soul and destroy souls, seen it abused terribly (by Spanish inquisitors, say), embraced sincerely for demonstrable good (by the likes of social justice true believer Dorothy Day), and everything in between. Silence engages in the contradictions of religion and of faith, and Scorsese has identified the source material, Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed 1966 novel, as being about “the painful, paradoxical passage…from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion.”
This journey is undertaken by Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), one of two Portuguese Jesuit priests in 1633 who travel to Japan on an urgent mission (the other priest is played, in a keen tone of austere blinkeredness, by Adam Driver of Paterson). With reluctant allowance from their superior (Ciarán Hinds), the missionaries go in search of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who appears to have renounced the Jesuit faith in Japan, where Christians have been persecuted and driven underground in fear of torture or death.
What follows suggests a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a dark journey with an even darker destination, fated to transform a naïve hero. It is, to be sure, slow going, with its run time of two hours and forty-one minutes devoted to longeurs of fearful, tortured thought and bursts of physical torture. Silence feels heavy with the burden of martyrdom and the weight of that “painful, paradoxical” struggle between faith and doubt.
But Silence also represents consummate filmmaking, with Scorsese surrounded by ace collaborators: his co-screenwriter Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York, The Age of Innocence), his loyal editor Thelma Schoonmaker (a three-time Oscar winner), cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (The Wolf of Wall Street), and regular designer Dante Ferretti (Shutter Island), among others. Though the acting is uniformly excellent, Scorsese has an ace in the hole, as well: Issei Ogata as the sly, canny inquisitor who burrows through the Jesuits’ sense of certainty.
Silence riffs on the roles of Jesus and Judas, the mystery of faith and the frailty of humanity (“Man’s nature,” as one character puts it, “cannot be moved”). It is a story of what Scorsese calls “the questioning faithful,” full of toils and snares and competing notions of freedom as earthly or eternal. For those outside of the Catholic experience, Silence will not resonate so deeply but more likely test their patience even more than Scorsese intends (for Silence is a deliberately trying film).
And yet, for all its Catholic insularity, Silence cultivates enough ambiguity—skewing to skepticism—to allow the outsider’s perspective on the arrogance of the European missionary, the cruelty of religious persecution, and, most disturbing to the faithful, God’s silence in the face of suffering.